CIA director says secret attacks in Pakistan have hobbled al-Qaeda

By Joby Warrick and Peter Finn
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, March 18, 2010

Aggressive attacks against al-Qaeda in Pakistan's tribal region have driven Osama bin Laden and his top deputies deeper into hiding and disrupted their ability to plan sophisticated operations, CIA Director Leon Panetta said Wednesday.

So profound is al-Qaeda's disarray that one of its lieutenants, in a recently intercepted message, pleaded with bin Laden to come to the group's rescue and provide some leadership, Panetta said. He credited improved coordination with Pakistan's government and what he called "the most aggressive operation that CIA has been involved in in our history," offering a near-acknowledgment of what is officially a secret war.

"Those operations are seriously disrupting al-Qaeda," Panetta said. "It's pretty clear from all the intelligence we are getting that they are having a very difficult time putting together any kind of command and control, that they are scrambling. And that we really do have them on the run."

Panetta is one of several senior officials who have stepped forward to argue that the administration is making gains against extremists, in part to rebut Republican criticism that President Obama has weakened national security. He is not the first CIA director to point to progress in the war against al-Qaeda, claims that sometimes prove too ambitious. "I have an excellent idea of where [bin Laden] is," then-CIA Director Porter J. Goss told an interviewer in 2005.

Senior Obama administration officials this week have given sharply different views on how bin Laden would be dealt with if he fell into U.S. hands. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, said Wednesday that the military would "certainly" try to capture bin Laden alive and "bring him to justice."

A day earlier, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. told a congressional panel that bin Laden would never go on trial in the United States because the chances of him being caught alive are "infinitesimal." He predicted flatly that bin Laden will be killed -- either by U.S. forces or by al-Qaeda operatives determined to prevent him from being captured.

Panetta said the agency has a plan in the event that a top al-Qaeda leader is captured. "The most likely scenario is you bring them to a military facility, and we would then do the questioning" there, he said.

A steady toll on al-Qaeda

Reflecting on his 13 months at the helm of the CIA, Panetta made no prediction about the fate of the man who has eluded a worldwide manhunt for nine years. But he said the combined U.S.-Pakistani campaign is taking a steady toll in terms of al-Qaeda leaders killed and captured, and is undercutting the group's ability to coordinate attacks outside its base along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

To illustrate that progress, U.S. intelligence officials revealed new details of a March 8 killing of a top al-Qaeda commander in the militant stronghold of Miram Shah in North Waziristan, in Pakistan's autonomous tribal region. The al-Qaeda official died in what local news reports described as a missile strike by an unmanned aerial vehicle. In keeping with long-standing practice, the officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because the CIA formally declines to acknowledge U.S. participation in attacks inside Pakistani territory.

Hussein al-Yemeni, the man killed in the attack, was identified by one intelligence official as among al-Qaeda's top 20 leaders and a participant in the planning for a Dec. 30 suicide bombing at a CIA base in the province of Khost in eastern Afghanistan. The bombing, in which a Jordanian double agent gained access to the CIA base and killed seven officers and contractors, was the deadliest single blow against the agency in a quarter-century.

Panetta's upbeat remarks contrasted with recent intelligence assessments of continuing terrorist threats against the U.S. homeland. But he also said al-Qaeda will continue to look for ways to strike inside the United States, and he noted that the organization is seeking to recruit people who lack criminal records or known ties to terrorist groups.

He cited the recent examples of Najibullah Zazi, an Afghan immigrant who targeted the New York subway system and pleaded guilty to terrorism charges, and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian charged with attempting to detonate explosives on a commercial flight about to land in Detroit.

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